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  An Interactive Arena

By Michael A. Fletcher and Maryann Haggerty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 8, 1995; Page A01

The District's new downtown sports arena will be a showcase for cutting-edge technology that allows fans to participate in events in ways that range from selecting their own instant replays to completing instant polls from their seats, its backers said yesterday.

The new arena, to be called MCI Center, is being touted as the first of a new generation of sports venues that will marry live entertainment and the latest tools of the information age.

MCI Communications Corp. will provide the technology that will allow fans to interact with arena events. The company is investing an undisclosed sum in the $175 million arena being built by Abe Pollin, owner of the local professional basketball and hockey franchises.

"It's hard to predict exactly what applications will be used, but MCI Center will be the most unique arena in the world in terms of advanced technology," Pollin said at a news conference.

The likely innovations include seat-back television monitors that will allow fans to call up instant replays from their favorite camera angles. Spectators both at home and in the arena will be able to ask on-line questions. And the star player of the game could be selected by an instant poll of fans.

"This kind of technology is something that we've been investigating," said Helen Maib, a spokeswoman for HOK Sports Facilities Group, the sports architecture firm that designed Chicago's new United Center. "The technology exists, but to my knowledge, it has never been put into an arena before."

MCI's arena investment is part of the company's diversification from being a long-distance telephone company "into entertainment," said Bert C. Roberts Jr., chairman and chief executive.

Although both Roberts and Pollin refused to put a dollar figure on MCI's involvement, it's small in comparison with the company's other recent push into the entertainment business -- a $2 billion investment in Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

In that deal, announced last month, MCI would use its high-speed communications lines to transmit programming from Murdoch's media holdings, which include the 20th Century Fox film and TV studios as well as the Fox television network.

"It will be much harder to differentiate between what is telecommunications and what is entertainment in the future," Roberts said.

MCI isn't buying the rights to broadcast Capitals hockey or Bullets basketball games, Roberts said. But he left open the possibility that Fox could do so in the future.

MCI's involvement with the arena goes beyond the standard agreement to put a sponsor's name on a facility, such as Pollin reached with USAir in renaming the former Capital Centre in Landover. Rather than simply paying for the right to put its name on the building, MCI is one of the lenders for the project along with NationsBank.

"Basically, we wanted to be a partner in it. We have in effect lent money for the project, and in return we will get a return on the loan plus rights to do a number of things," Roberts said.

Like other companies that sponsor sports venues, MCI also is banking on getting plenty of low-tech name recognition. "Just think if the presidential ball was held there," Roberts said. "I wouldn't mind having the MCI logo there."

In addition to the money his company is lending Pollin, Roberts said, it will put up "millions" to install a variety of high-tech gadgets in the arena.

By opening night, fans who are paying for expensive executive suites and club seats will be able to use some of those gadgets. It will likely take longer for all the arena's seats to have such capabilities. But Pollin and Roberts said they envision technology that eventually will allow everyone at the arena to see instant replays on demand, call up player stats or order refreshments.

The innovations planned for the new arena were revealed as Pollin announced that his financing package to build MCI Center is complete. Pollin would not reveal specific details, but he said the bulk of his financing will come from NationsBank.

"We are ready, willing and able to commence construction immediately upon receiving the required government approvals," Pollin said.

The news that Pollin's financing is in place cheered city officials, who said the investment is an important vote of confidence for the District.

"That's not small change where I come from," Mayor Marion Barry (D) said. "That's a lot of money." He added that the arena will have a positive "psychological and emotional impact" on how people perceive downtown.

But before ground is broken for the 20,300-seat arena, several governmental hurdles must be cleared. There are historic preservation and environmental studies being conducted in conjunction with a review by the National Capital Planning Commission, which represents federal interests in local planning. The planning commission's ruling on the project is expected to come in October.

The arena is slated to be built largely on a long-vacant city-owned site in the 600 block of G Street NW. The city is moving to acquire three properties needed to accommodate the arena. But city officials cannot move ahead with negotiations to buy them until legislation setting aside tax money for the project clears Congress. A hearing on the House bill, which has the support of congressional leaders, is scheduled for later this month. The city also must relocate hundreds of municipal employees who work in buildings on the site.

Despite the remaining obstacles, Pollin and city officials say they are confident that they will break ground in October and be in operation by the fall of 1997.

"The city has kept its word on everything so far," Pollin said. "We are right on schedule and confident that by mid-October we will put a shovel in the ground."

The mayor is looking even further ahead. "I'm looking forward to the ribbon-cutting," Barry said.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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